by Adam Sedia

The origin of poetry is inextricably tied to music. The earliest poems—the Homeric epics, the Chinese Book of Songs—were all lyrics to be sung. Because vowels allow the open voice to sing while consonants break the voice, the syllable defined the meter, setting the rhythm of the song. Thus, metered poetry—which is to say, all traditional poetry—is inextricably tied to syllabification.

The syllable is the basic unit of poetry. It builds feet, which in turn build verses. Even verse constructed of non-uniform syllable quantities such as accentual verse in Old English epic poetry still presume the syllable as their basic unit, with the accented syllables defining meter. The only smaller unit of language in poetry, the sound, figures as a poetic device in alliteration and assonance. While in Old English poetry alliteration helps to quantify the meter, sounds, particularly consonants, on their own do not contribute to the musical rhythm, or meter, at least in English.

Sometimes a syllable and a word are coterminous. This is the monosyllable. On its own, it seems unremarkable—an everyday feature of nearly every language. Yet monosyllabic words feature prominently in English. Indeed, among the world’s languages and Europe’s in particular, English contains an unusually high number of monosyllabic words, which can be found in every part of speech. A 2007 study conducted by the University of Lyon in France found English to have an average of approximately 1.5 syllables per word—roughly equivalent to both French and Mandarin Chinese, and far fewer than in German, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese. With syllabification as the basis of meter and English so heavily monosyllabic, would it not be expected to find monosyllabic words playing a prominent role in English verse?

As it turns out, the monosyllable plays a powerful and not frequent enough role in affecting expression in English poetry. This essay explores the different ways in which exclusive or near-exclusive use of monosyllables does so, to variegated and indeed surprising effect.

.

Development of Monosyllables in English

English was not always a strongly monosyllabic language. Centuries of development made it so. A critical element in this development revolves around the all-pervasive silent “e” in modern English. In many cases it is a vestige of earlier forms that pronounced vowel as a schwa. The opening lines of the General Prologue of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English illustrates this:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

To read these lines in their proper iambic pentameter requires observing some stark differences from modern pronunciation. First, the plural “shoures” (“showers”) and the past-tense “perced” (“pierced”) and “bathed” are pronounced as disyllables, with the final “e” pronounced as a schwa. Less apparently, “sote” and “rote” (“soft” and “root”), are also disyllables, with the final “e” as a schwa giving the lines a feminine ending. The same applies to “Aprille,” “droghte,” “Marche,” and “veyne,” but the final “e” elides with the following words that begin either in a vowel or in h, thus masking the second syllable. Significantly, all of these Middle English words are now pronounced as single syllables, illustrating English’s tendency to compress pronunciation into monosyllables, either dropping the final “e” altogether or converting it into a silent orthographical device that affects the pronunciation of a preceding vowel (distinguishing, for example, “kit” from “kite”).

A special case of syllable compression involves the –ed suffix in the past tense of verbs. Pronouncing the suffix as a separate syllable persisted well into the seventeenth century, and in some verbs persists to this day. Consider the following line from John Dryden’s “Annus Mirabilis,” written in 1666:

And armed Edwards look’d with anxious eyes,

The contraction of “looked” to “look’d” indicates that Dryden would have regarded the word as disyllabic. Yet for the verse to conform to the poem’s iambic pentameter, “armed” must be pronounced as a disyllable as well: “armèd.” The meter throughout the poem demonstrates varying pronunciation of the –ed suffix: “judged,” “fired,” and “grieved” are all monosyllabic, identical to their current pronunciations; yet “stopp’d,” “seem’d,” “call’d,” and “oppress’d” are all contracted to accommodate the meter. This variance indicates that English was on its way to losing the separate pronunciation of the –ed suffix, but had not arrived there yet for all verbs.

Verbs ending in a consonant followed by “t” (including double “t”) continue to retain the pronunciation of –ed as a separate syllable in their past tense because elision of the “t” and “d” is not natural. “Wanted” and “hunted,” for example, are disyllabic in “Annus Mirabilis” and remain so today.

.

Heavily Monosyllabic Verse

With a wide palette of monosyllables available in every part of speech, English poets could construct entire verses from them alone. Not surprisingly, then, many works of English poetry utilize the monosyllable as a device without going so far as to construct an entire poem from monosyllables. Two types of partial monosyllabic content appear: either (1) an entirely monosyllabic section appears within a larger work or (2) the entire, usually shorter, work makes extensive, though not exclusive, use of monosyllables.

An example of the first type appears in Shakespeare’s King John. In Act III, Scene 3, King John of England is about to order his retainer Hubert to kill Arthur, his nephew, a potential rival claimant to the throne. Before giving the order he tests Hubert’s loyalty, beginning the speech in four entirely monosyllabic lines:

Hubert: I am much bounden to your majesty.

King John: Good friend, thou hast no cause to say so yet:
But thou shalt have; and creep time ne’er so slow,
Yet it shall come for me to do thee good.
I had a thing to say, — but let it go:

The king is struck by Hubert’s profession of loyalty, and wryly states that Hubert’s loyalty will be proven by the deed he is about to ask him to perform. He then concludes by saying that he has an unspoken thought.
The exclusive use of monosyllables in this passage give the meter a measured, hesitating feel. The king is carefully weighing his words as he prepares to order the murder of his own kin. As a dramatic device, the monosyllable perfectly captures the king’s cautious deliberation, even on the written page without the aid of thespian interpretation.

The second type of partial monosyllabic usage appears in a short but famous poem by Robert Frost:

.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

.

Although only the first and fourth lines are purely monosyllabic, nine of the remaining lines are monosyllabic except for a single polysyllabic word—in every case disyllabic except for the word “promises,” which is the longest word in the poem. The remaining five lines are still monosyllabic except for two disyllabic words. All in all, 89 of the poem’s 108 words are monosyllabic.

The impression the monosyllables give is classic Frost: laconic, direct, unembellished—the stereotypical flinty New Englander. Frost gives a direct description without any emotional effusions or descriptive flourishes, directing the reader to the substance of the description rather than the beauty of the language used. The poetic focus here is on the scenery and the action, not the description.

The sparsity of the monosyllables also reflects the starkness of the New England winter, a time of bare trees and fallow fields and colorless snow-covered landscapes. In this very subtle and very skillful way the poetic language complements the poem’s subject, conveying by pronunciation the atmosphere it describes.

.

Totally Monosyllabic Verse

While Frost’s poem is more than 80 percent monosyllabic, it still uses disyllables and even one trisyllable when needed to achieve its desired expression. But writing a poem entirely in monosyllables requires strict discipline; the poet must forego common words like “only” and “little,” most participles and gerunds, and even many prepositions (“before,” “after,” “into,” . . .). Writing a successful poem entirely in monosyllables would truly constitute an achievement, but has it been done?

As it turns out, yes—at least twice. Only two well-known poems—at least that this author has been able to locate—consist entirely of monosyllables. Both of them use the device to great effect, and are certainly worth exploring here.

The first of these is the famous Elegy written by Chidiock Tichborne (1562-1586), written while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London awaiting execution for his involvement in the Babington Plot against Queen Elizabeth I. The evening before he was to be hanged, drawn and quartered—that is, castrated and disemboweled while still conscious—he sent correspondence to his wife with the following poem:

.

Elegy

My prime of youth is but a frost of cares,
My feast of joy is but a dish of pain,
My crop of corn is but a field of tares,
And all my good is but vain hope of gain;
The day is past, and yet I saw no sun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

My tale was heard and yet it was not told,
My fruit is false, and yet my leaves are green,
My youth is spent and yet I am not old,
I saw the world and yet I was not seen;
My thread is cut and yet it is not spun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

I sought my death and found it in my womb,
I looked for life and saw it was a shade,
I trod the earth and knew it was my tomb,
And now I die, and now I was but made;
My glass is full, and now my glass is runne,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

.

This is impressive work for any twenty-four year-old, let alone one under the stress of knowing he was soon to be gruesomely butchered to death. Here the narrative voice is first-person, Tichborne himself meditating on his limbic existence, contrasting his youth with the death sentence that overshadows him. Though he is in the prime of his life, he is as good as dead.

Three sixains of iambic pentameter—a total of 180 monosyllabic words—is impressively consistent, yet throughout the poem the device never renders the language strained or awkward. Instead, the expression is completely natural. The monosyllabic phrasing, as with Shakespeare, conveys a sense of measure and deliberation in the narration, slowing the pace of the voice and thus conferring on it a solemn and staid demeanor appropriate for its subject. The monosyllables also foreclose any elaborate or technical language, restricting the description to a very basic vocabulary. This, in turn, conveys a sense of sobriety and frankness, an acknowledgment of harsh reality divorced from any superficiality of emotion or erudition. Indeed, monosyllables seem perfect for the rendering of the Elegy’s subject matter.

The other poem was written nearly four centuries later, across the Atlantic, by a black American woman. Rather than musing on death, it describes a scene of life. Yet despite its great differences in time, place, authorship, and subject, it achieves a large measure of its effect by consisting entirely of monosyllables. This poem is Gwendolyn Brooks’s famous 1959 poem, “We Real Cool”:

.

We Real Cool

The Pool Players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel.

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

.

Much has been written on this simple poem of eight lines and a mere twenty-four syllables, and indeed it presents unexpectedly complex layers of meaning. This analysis, however, will focus only on the effect achieved by Brooks’s use of entirely monosyllabic words.

The narrative voice of the poem is not Brooks herself, but seven pool players she observes at a dive-bar called The Golden Shovel. The tone here is not the mournful introspection of Tichborne’s Elegy, but a boastful reveling in irresponsibility, crime, alcoholism, and libertinism. The short, clipped monosyllables are confrontational, even threatening, like shots of gunfire, perfectly capturing the mindset that perpetrates the actions described.

And in the final line Brooks presents the consequences of the pool players’ delinquency: “the wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23.) Even though the impending death of the men is portrayed in a sentence of three monosyllables like the rest of the poem, that final line assumes a different character from the boasting of the previous lines. Its terseness presents the sense of the abrupt end for which the narrators are destined. Indeed, the entire poem through syllabification conveys the Hobbesian “poor, nasty, brutish, and short” existence of savage man.

.

Conclusion

The monosyllable has a special place in English and in English poetry specifically. No other length of word can so easily be put to constant or exclusive use in a poem. Avoiding monosyllables would require omitting all articles, many important prepositions, and most forms of basic verbs such as “be,” “have,” “do,” and “see.” Any expression beyond a mere few clipped sentences becomes impossible without these. Not so with the monosyllable. As Frost and Tichborne show, very eloquent and stirring verses can be assembled mostly or even entirely from monosyllables.

The exclusive use of monosyllables by both Tichborne and Brooks two very different poets in very different places and times writing very different poems—demonstrates its versatility as a poetic device. It is surprising, then, that only their two well-known poems employ it exclusively. Monosyllabic verse, then, presents a still-unexplored avenue of poetic exploration, one that may yield both surprising and admirable results.

.

.


NOTE: The Society considers this page, where your poetry resides, to be your residence as well, where you may invite family, friends, and others to visit. Feel free to treat this page as your home and remove anyone here who disrespects you. Simply send an email to mbryant@classicalpoets.org. Put “Remove Comment” in the subject line and list which comments you would like removed. The Society does not endorse any views expressed in individual poems or comments and reserves the right to remove any comments to maintain the decorum of this website and the integrity of the Society. Please see our Comments Policy here.

16 Responses

  1. Joseph S. Salemi

    Monosyllabic words in English (like words of any syllabic length) are tools in the poet’s toolbox, and can certainly be used for the effects that Sedia mentions, or even for the composition of a poem that uses them exclusively. And the excellent poems of Tichborne and Brooks and Sedia himself prove that without question.

    But they are tools primarily, not ends in themselves. A poem of extended length that was consciously constructed solely of monosyllabic words would be more in the category of a literary feat, such as an acrostic poem that uses the first letters in its initial words to spell out something; or what the Greek poet did who composed a poetic summary of all twenty-four books of the Iliad by omitting the letter alpha in the first book, beta in the second book, and so on through the entire alphabet. Such feats are admirable, but in some cases we might admire the feat more than the poetry itself.

    I don’t bring this up to deny Sedia’s very thoughtful and lucid points, and his excursion on how English developed into a heavily monosyllabic tongue is precise and scholarly. (I hope, by the way, that what Sedia says about the /-ed/ preterite ending will finally convince some people here to stop putting eighteenth-century apostrophes in their past-tense verbs.) But I think we should be careful about assuming that any one tool in the poet’s toolbox is preferable to any other. Remember how the modernist Ezra Pound laid down strictures against abstract terms and adjectives. The entire modernist agenda (at least in the hands of its third-rate camp followers) was not about “freedom,” as the cover story goes, but about the restriction and strangulation of language, and the imposition of a plain-style colloquialism on “serious” poets.

    Look at the “small noun” poetry of George Oppen, which carried these restrictions to absurd lengths, or that of Basil Bunting, who also delighted in monosyllabic words. The entire formalist rebellion against this kind of verbal parsimony involves bringing back a full-throated eloquence that uses whatever words we choose to make a poem work. Monosyllabic lines of verse are perfectly OK (consider Shakespeare’s “To love that well which thou must leave ere long” and many other lines in his sonnets), but let’s be careful of a surreptitious modernist agenda to promote monosyllables as a way to keep language in chains.

    Reply
    • Adam Sedia

      I hope I didn’t convey that I regard monosyllabic poetry as a gimmicky avant-garde technique. You are exactly right: it is a tool in the poet’s toolbox that can be put to surprisingly effective use. I was so surprised that I decided to write an essay. It was Frost’s poetry that turned my attention to the laconic sound of monosyllabic verse – both in the quoted example and in “Fire and Ice.” As I explored more, only the Tichborne elegy and Brooks’s famous poem employ it exclusively, or at least that I could find scouring my volumes of poetry. That surprised me, so I thought I’d draw attention to a device that really is not frequently employed but has great potential. Like anything, it can become hackneyed with overuse, but with the emphasis on novelty over the last century and the influence of Chinese verse on the early modernists I though monosyllables would have been more of “a thing.” It turns out they’re not.

      Reply
  2. James A. Tweedie

    May it come to pass that your own one-beat verse will wind up in that queue as a third! To write verse (or prose) in this way can at times sound like a man who beats a drum one stroke at a time— or, if done with skill, the thought can be phrased in a way that lifts one’s soul to the heights of bliss!

    I don’t think this is a hard thing to do, but I do think that it is a hard thing to do well.

    When they’re set down with care,
    Words can be light as air;
    And if stressed on the beat
    Leave your seat, tap your feet!
    Live it up, take a chance,
    Do a one-step, and dance!

    What you say is quite true,
    And my hat’s off to you.
    Words, like bricks in a wall,
    One by one (although small)
    Can—for better or worse—
    With some skill, be a verse
    Just as good (dare one hope)
    As a Frost, Poe, or Pope.

    Well done, my friend.

    Reply
  3. C.B. Anderson

    I use more four-letter words in my daily discourse than I use in my poems, and have , thereby, missed out on any number of good rhymes.

    Reply
  4. Daniel Kemper

    I thoroughly enjoyed and also admired this essay. For me, studies like this could lead to clear maps for various sonics and the impact of their effects the way artists have color so well mapped out and musicians, notes. Collecting and publicizing these things could greatly contribute to formal poetry getting recognized more widely as the fine art that it is.

    Reply
    • Adam Sedia

      I’m elated that you found the essay illuminating. The effect of the monosyllable never really struck me until I really delved into Frost. I think it’s a key component of his style. And you’re exactly right: syllabification just as much as meter affects the timbre of recited poetry just like musical phrasing. Poetry’s origins lie with music, and divorcing it from those origins does it great disservice.

      And thank you for giving my music a listen. I’m glad you enjoyed the quartet.

      Reply
  5. Joseph S. Salemi

    Here are a few examples from bad modernist verse:

    Whence comes man at his birth? or where
    does death lead him? Whom do you mourn?
    Whose steps wake your delight?

    –Basil Bunting, “Chomei at Toyama”

    (Bunting also has a poem with the line “His coat is torn and his hat has a hole in it,” the title of which I cannot recall. An editor once quoted this crappy poem of Bunting to me an an example of “modernist brilliance.”)

    Then there’s this:

    A poor lobsterman
    His teeth were bad
    he drove us over that island
    In an old car.

    –George Oppen, “Ballad”

    In the second example from Oppen, note that “lobsterman” is one of those English compounded nouns that could easily resolve itself into two separate words, thereby making the passage even more monosyllabic. Disyllabic words like “hothouse, fairway, searchlight, cowshed, keystone” and countless others are of this type, and therefore many lines of English poetry could be construed as being more monosyllabic than they appear on the printed page.

    Reply
  6. Margaret Coats

    Adam, you did good research here, and based on it, made some interesting suggestions for poets, then gave a good demonstration of how to follow the most difficult suggestion (in your poem posted separately from this essay). Worthwhile accomplishments! However, you’re dead wrong on literary theory about the place of the syllable in English verse. Still, your accomplishments do not at all depend on your theory. Thus I’m saving my criticism of it for a second comment below, because here I’d simply like to follow up your research with some of my own that you inspired.

    You found just two Robert Frost poems to mention as specially significant uses of monosyllable. I decided to take a look at about 200 pages worth of John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892), because he would seem to be a likely user of monosyllable. Whittier was a New Englander like Frost, but he had little formal education and did very little travel. He was a Quaker, and as he says in his “First-Day Thoughts,” Quaker worship can occur with nothing spoken at all.

    The results of my research confirm yours. Whittier neither wrote a monosyllabic poem, nor used monosyllables to any great extent within his poems. There are just a very few poems in which he may be treating monosyllables as a technique. These include his 25-line “Proem,” written to appear first in one of his earlier published collections (1848). In it, he capably expresses appreciation for Spenser, Sidney, Milton, and Marvell. The last two lines, addressing Freedom, form a monosyllabic contrast to the whole:

    Still with a love as deep and strong
    As theirs, I lay, like them, my best gifts on thy shrine.

    Perhaps Whittier wished to present himself as a humble, taciturn American, but this seems to fall flat in relation to the Proem’s earlier lines. And (illustrating a potential deficiency of monosyllabic lines), it depends on the antecedents to “theirs” and “them.” Its ceremonial weight derives from the final line’s length, and from slowing achieved by commas.

    Whittier changed the title of “Dedication of a Schoolhouse” to “Our State,” which like the topic may suggest a focus on monosyllables. The second of seven stanzas reads,

    Rough, bleak, and hard, our little State
    Is scant of soil, of limits strait;
    Her yellow sands are sands alone,
    Her only mines are ice and stone.

    “Arisen at Last,” most likely written in 1855 to congratulate Massachusetts on exercising states’ rights against the federal Fugitive Slave Law, has a better conclusion than “Proem,” achieved by contrasting monosyllables with longer words:

    . . . When North and South shall strive no more,
    And all their feuds and fears be lost
    In Freedom’s holy Pentecost.

    Some of Whittier’s most famous lines, from “Barbara Frietchie,” are mostly monosyllabic:

    ‘Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
    But spare your country’s flag,’ she said . . .

    All day long that free flag tossed
    Over the heads of the rebel host.

    Other well-known lines come from the 38 quatrains of “Our Master,” which is the source of no fewer than five hymns (typically four or five stanzas). Whittier as a lifetime devout Quaker never sang hymns at worship, but the musical qualities of monosyllables–when judiciously combined with some disyllables and a few trisyllables–are recognizable in this religious poem. Please be aware that hymn publishers are notorious for altering texts, and don’t try to consult Whittier’s hymns in a hymnal, but study the original long poem in a reliable edition of his works.

    Whittier saw and used the artistic potential of monosyllabic words, but I believe he viewed them as WORDS, not syllables. Despite his relative lack of education and experience, his reading enabled him to revel in our English word-hoard, and use a variety of words to become a master in the English tradition of accentual–not syllabic–meter.

    Reply
  7. Margaret Coats

    In my summary sentence on Whittier above, I refer to accentual and syllabic meter, because you, Adam, are veering into prosodic theory in the first paragraphs of your essay, and you’re doing this rather incautiously to support the idea that monosyllables are important in English poetry. You say that syllables define meter and set rhythm in song (which would horrify some music theorists), and that the syllable is therefore the basic unit of poetry, being the building block of metrical feet. I am no prosodist, and I will simply give you a few words from Paul Fussell, who is such a careful one that he puts “iambic pentameter” in quotes when talking about Shakespeare’s basic meter. He is the author of the landmark book Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, but these snippets come from his articles on English prosody and on meter in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetics, 2nd edition. “The reader naturally measures by stresses, not by the number of syllables, and he finds it almost impossible to grasp the metrical shape of the poem [of syllabic construction] without an elaborately unnatural pause at the end of each line.” Fussell says that only three feeble generalizations seem to hold true for all English verse, and the first of these is that “stress has generally played a more notable part in the structure of English verse that it has in many continental [syllabic] poetries.” He also warns that when English verse becomes more accentual-syllabic than accentual (as in the era of Dryden and Pope), a certain restrictiveness and rigidity arises.

    I would say that the first two paragraphs in your essay are problematic and unnecessary to the interest of the whole.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Well, let’s be fair — Sedia did not say that words and syllables are the same. He just pointed out that a word and a syllable would be coterminous if the word were monosyllabic. In scanning an English line, a monosyllabic word and a syllable do not carry different weight for the reader, who is of course being guided by the stress pattern of the poet’s chosen meter.

      Yes, it is primarily stress (call it “accent” or “ictus” or “tonic”) that is the dominant element in a line of English verse. To focus on syllables rather than stress is to invite the slavish syllable-counting that is too common among self-styled traditionalist poets.

      The original Proto-Indo-European line, as reconstructed by M.L. Gasparov, was purely syllabic and stress played no part whatsoever in versification. But we’ve come a helluva long way since then, especially in the Germanic languages. They are heavily stress-based. This is why attempts to bring English back to a purely syllabic metrics, or one based on the long or short quantity of syllables, always fail. They just don’t sound right to the English ear.

      Reply
      • Margaret Coats

        Be fair to me, Joseph. I did not accuse Adam of saying that words and syllables are the same. And I did give you an opportunity to re-assert your always-welcome insistence that stress is the dominant element in English verse. Adam does say “syllable is the basic unit of poetry,” and if he alludes to English stress at all in his theory, it is defined in terms of syllable, as “non-uniform syllable quantities.”

        Adam is able to use his focus on syllables to make a powerful analysis of Gwendolyn Brooks’s meaning as Hobbesian existence revealed through syllabification. He does not claim to deal with the meter in her poem, and thus I am merely complementing him (not correcting him!) by pointing out its achievement as a unique monometer poem in monosyllables. Fussell’s second “feeble generalization” about English verse is that ascending rhythms (with stress at the end of the line) are more natural to it. This is why Brooks wants “We” at the end of her lines–to show where the stress is, and deny significant stress to words other than “We.” Just a minor thing we can notice by focusing on stress as well as syllable.

    • Adam Sedia

      Thank you for really delving into my essay. A thoughtful criticism is one of the sincerest compliments an author can be paid. But I am afraid you read too much into my very brief venture into prosodic theory. I am not arguing that syllabification alone defines meter. Quite the contrary: the foot defines the meter. However, the foot is still composed of syllables, which are the irreducible units of verse. Syllables have different qualities that combine in different ways to define feet, but the syllable is still the basic unit.
      Consider this imperfect analogy from science. Think of the verse as a molecule and the feet composing it as atoms. The atoms have different qualities in a finite variety because they are composed of a finite combination of particles that are either charged (protons and electrons) or uncharged (neutrons) — which represent syllables in this analogy. The combination of different qualities of syllables (for example, stressed and unstressed) defines a different foot, just as different numbers of particles (charged and uncharged) define the elements and their isotopes. The particles themselves remain the fundamental building blocks. (Yes, protons and neutrons can be broken down further into quarks, which might be said to represent sounds, but the analogy becomes too strained here – as I said, it’s an imperfect analogy.)
      I do not disagree with you or Dr. Fussell that stress defines English meter, in contrast to French, for example, which is purely syllabic. But I am not making the point that English is syllabic; only that syllables are the irreducible units from which feet are constructed. Stress is only a quality.
      As for music theory, my position is the same. In singing, a note is inescapably tied to a vowel or diphthong – just try sustaining the sound “k” or “b” on a note. Rhythm and melody are constructed from combinations of notes, but the note itself, which is inextricably tied to the vowel of a syllable, remains the basic unit of music.
      What the monosyllable does is make each basic building block into a single word, rendering the unit that conveys the meaning (the word) with the basic unit from which the metrical feet are constructed.
      I hope I clarified my position. I do not think we ultimately disagree, but I may have unintentionally made what I thought was a fairly uncontroversial observation into a theory of prosody that I never intended to put forth.

      Reply
  8. Joseph S. Salemi

    Margaret, I did not mean to criticize either you or Adam Sedia. My main concern was to add a warning note to the effect that focusing on syllables in English verse is like walking into a ditch of quicksand in a swamp — we will sink into a morass of unnatural syllable-counting and faux-classical quantitative (“long-short”) measurements.

    My personal reading of Brooks’ poem places the ictus on the pair of words that come between the repetitions of “We” — hence

    We REAL COOL. We
    LEFT SCHOOL. We

    LURK LATE. We
    STRIKE STRAIGHT. We…

    Of course this is my personal scansion, and it may not be the emphasis given by other readers.

    Reply
  9. Daniel Kemper

    Hey Adam, it might be a good thing to address this: since iambic hex and anapestic tet have equal syllable counts, you must have something different in mind concerning “measure” than literally hit the page. Did you simply mean something like “are foundational” ? Or maybe a more limited context ? Or is it just a slip?

    On another note…
    One either writes form-al poetry and gets it right and always plays in tune, or one is merely writing form-ish poetry.

    Imagine a student protesting a low grade because of grammatical errors by saying, “I’m mostly right; I’m not some… some… comma-counter!”

    Reply
    • Adam Sedia

      I get what you’re saying. My statement about the relationship of the syllable to verse is more fundamental. Yes, iambic hexameter and anapestic tetrameter both have twelve syllables per line. They vary in the *quality* of the syllables, but the fundamental unit of measure for both is the syllable. I can see how my use of “measure” in a poetic context was ambiguous. I’m speaking of “measurement” in the scientific context. Energy is measured in joules, time in seconds, and verse in syllables. The stress or alliteration contained in each affects the quality of the syllable, and groupings according to similar qualities are a “higher-level” unit of verse. But fundamentally the syllable is the most basic unit that carries any meaning. I hope this clarifies my position.

      Reply
  10. BDW

    as per “Clear Dew” Ibuse

    Vocalissimus,
    what syllables do you seek?
    The roaring winds speak.

    =

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.